ISWA’s Foray into the South — A Clarion Call for Security Action
In the early hours of yesterday, while having a vigil, Daily Trust reported that gunmen stormed the Celestial Church of Christ in Wasimi somewhere in Ogun state and abducted two worshippers. This case is of importance not just because the kidnappers are demanding that N50 million be paid for the release of the assistant parish priest and the Sunday school teacher, but because of the wider implications of this new foray.
Wasimi is in Ewekoro LGA. This LGA is bang in the middle of Ogun State. The action of these militants is indicative of an escalation of the security paradigm in the state. And it is instructive. For many years, Ondo state was seen as unbridgeable to men of the underworld. That changed in 2019 when Funke Olakunrin, daughter of Reuben Fasoranti, the leader of the Yoruba umbrella group, Afenifere, was killed by herders on her way to Akure from Ore. Many other killings took place after then but there was not much interest in the security breach of the state until another high-profile killing took place. This time in 2020. The Olufon of Ifon, a first-class King, was shot at and killed while on his way back from attending the monthly meeting of the state Council of Oba. You would recall that some days back, at least 50 worshipers were killed in Owo, a town in Ondo State when gunmen invaded St Francis Catholic Church and shot sporadically.
These attacks are a combination of those conducted by ethnic Fulani militia whose actions are well documented and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). The latter group has been fingered by the Nigerian government for the Owo massacre.
ISWA is the faction of Boko Haram affiliated with the Islamic State. The menacing stance of the group came to the attention of many people when in June 2020, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations, they called a religious gathering in a village in Borno State. As armed extremists entered the village, claiming to be on a preaching mission, and demanded that locals surrender their arms and any other weaponry. Once the locals relinquished their dane guns and bows and arrows, the militants began shooting at close range and ramming those attempting to run. For six hours, the mob slaughtered 81 individuals, injured many more, and kidnapped seven. As they fled, they stole hundreds of livestock and set fire to the village.
Four days after, they went after a base for many international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) in Nigeria. Using heavy weaponry and rocket launchers, they killed 38 people and laid to waste 20 soldiers who fought tooth and nail to protect the aid workers.
As far back as 2018, Reuters has reported ISWA creating an economy for itself in large swaths of Borno and Yobe states. In return for keeping the people under their governance safe, they take taxes. Among other revenue generation schemes, they charge the people $8 a cow and $5 for smaller animals. ISWA protects its Muslim locals from Boko Haram, something Nigeria’s army cannot always do. That has reportedly won the group’s local backing and eroded support for the military. In 2021, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report, 36% of all terrorist attacks were claimed by ISWA, Boko Haram claimed 8% and 44% were not attributed to any group. ISWA was responsible for Nigeria’s deadliest attack of 2021, with gunmen killing over 30 soldiers at an army base in the Borno region.
ISWA is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, whose killing by police in 2009 sparked an Islamist insurgency in Nigeria. Under ISWA, men must wear long beards, night-time movements are restricted, and prayers are compulsory, the herder said. Offenders can get 40 lashes. ISWA is the largest IS affiliate, and the UK government has, on its website, warned about the group detailing its latest activities. The FCDO advise against all travel to Borno State, Yobe State, Adamawa State, Gombe State, Kaduna State, Katsina State, and Zamfara State.
Therefore, its entrenched attacks in Ondo state are not completely unexpected. A DSS document advising the police concerning a probable ISWA attack on Ondo banks and markets was leaked to the public in October 2019. That was the first evidence that ISWA had designs for the state. Yet despite the intelligence, attacks upon attacks have taken place. And who says ISWA does not just have designs for Ogun state, but also the regions of the South West and South-South? With active cells in Okene, Kogi state — a state which borders 2 South-West states, 2 South-South states, and 2 South-East states, they are as strategic as any terrorist organization can be in infiltrating the southern part of the country.
Nigeria, unfortunately, does not have a stellar reputation when it comes to apprehending terrorist suspects. And because Nigeria’s security forces have failed to pool resources to present a common front against terrorism, mass casualty incidents like Owo continue to occur.
As the government’s attention switches to succession and next year’s elections, security has been put on the back burner — the President and his party’s chieftains were seen laughing at a dinner organized a night after the news of the Owo massacre. Would the opposition stand up to fill the void by presenting a holistic plan to tackle the intractable and increasing security challenges being posed by ISWA and other groups?
For the citizens, it’s important to keep a low profile. Since travel advice can be difficult to get from the Nigerian authorities, we can pay attention to those offered by other countries to their citizens visiting Nigeria. In the North, there is advice against all travel to Borno State, Yobe State, Adamawa State, Gombe State, Kaduna State, Katsina State, and Zamfara State. Even travel by air can be tricky. On 26 March 2022, gunmen launched an attack against Kaduna airport, killing at least one airport official. They advise against all but essential travel to Bauchi State, Kano State, Jigawa State, Niger State, Sokoto State, Plateau State and Taraba State; and within 20km of the border with Niger in Kebbi State. In the South, there is advice against all travel to the riverine areas of Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River States. They advise against all but essential travel to Abia State and non-riverine areas of Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States. While none of the states in the South West is mentioned, it is not ridiculous to advise, based on reports, that you should remain vigilant, stay clear of large gatherings, and pay attention to local media and social media reports.
As I finished this piece, I was shown the messages of a person whose uncle was kidnapped by ISWAP. She says the police know the location where they are kept and even the identity of the kidnappers, but they have asked them to pay the ransom for ‘peace to reign’. She is drained. She has sold her land. All the other contributions for ransom she has done in the past bring tears to her eyes. She ended by saying that most Nigerians don’t know half of what is going on.
The first duty of the government is the preservation of lives and properties. ISWA’s and other group’s activities clearly show the failure of that duty. Would the government salvage its image? Will you do your best to protect yourself?